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Boston church gets creative with the arts

 

A call for art reflecting grace invites artists worldwide to be part of community

By Sherry Blackman | Presbyterians Today

Newton Presbyterian Church in Boston has always been a supporter of the arts through innovative programs. In August 2020, it introduced children to the abstract work of Jackson Pollack. Now, the congregation is calling for art submissions from around the world to be featured on the church’s social media. Courtesy of Newton Presbyterian Church

Throughout the centuries, houses of worship, from soaring cathedrals to humble churches, have proclaimed the Creator’s power and beauty through the arts — everything from architecture, mosaics and stained glass to drama, music, poetry, paintings and sculpture. Today, that same artistic Spirit is moving through Newton Presbyterian Church in Boston. While the pandemic has required church walls to become more porous, Newton Presbyterian has been reaching out and inviting artists, writers and musicians to showcase their works in its worship space and through the church’s social media platforms as a way to glorify God and reflect on the gift of grace, as Anita Ulloa, a ruling elder, and Jack Holder, a deacon, say of the “God [who] is speaking in ancient and new ways.”

Two years before the pandemic, the congregation met to envision how God was calling them to move forward after experiencing a schism that divided the church. The members came to that meeting with an understanding that outreach was everyone’s responsibility, and what better way to reach out than through the arts, which, Ulloa says, “have the muscle to awaken, stir and unite community.”

“We shared a vision to bring the arts back into the day-to-day life of the church and to reach out to the world at large,” said Ulloa, who chairs the outreach committee of five. So, the committee sent out a call to artists beyond the church to submit and showcase their creative work.

When the pandemic hit, it forced the church to actualize its vision virtually. “We didn’t want to wait until we were back in person for worship. We decided to engage social media as a platform as well as having a live, in-person art show for all who are able to attend once we are open again,” said Ulloa.

Holder added that the pandemic quarantine was “a time for us to become more spiritually conscious as a congregation and discern how to reach out beyond the limits of the greater Boston area.” Holder is a seminary graduate, artist and cartoonist.

Like all churches shuttered during the pandemic, social media became the focal point for bringing connection, community and worship into lives that rarely, if ever, stepped foot into a sanctuary. Attendance at Newton Presbyterian soared through its worship services livestreamed on YouTube, and the call for art went out “around the globe,” said Holder.

The committee also used its personal connections to get the word out, including the Presbytery of Boston, nonfaith groups and churches outside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“We are drawing from many different wells with cups full of water,” said Holder. “We are looking for art, artists and the Spirit in places no one else is considering. We are trying to find truth with cartoonists, musicians and artists. What I mean by that is God is still speaking truth even from those who don’t profess faith at all. As a result, we discover new truths and become better followers of Christ. And every time we look, we come back inspired and with new brothers and sisters.”

Artists as far away as South America and Singapore are submitting their works, including paintings, photography, comics, sheet music, poetry and short stories. Newton Presbyterian’s outreach committee reviews all submissions. There is no age requirement: young and old may participate. The committee asks that each piece be accompanied with a short explanation from the artist as to what inspired their work. For example, Carlos Bonardi, a graphic designer, illustrator and comic artist living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, recently submitted a painting titled “Do Not Let Yourself Be Beat.” It expresses having faith, staying happy and dancing during COVID-19. The piece, he said, speaks of not being defeated. “It speaks of the strength that our grandparents must have, of the doctors and the children who are our hope,” Bonardi wrote.

The pieces that are chosen by the committee are featured on the church’s website, Instagram and Facebook webpages. The committee often rolls out one to two pieces at a time. So far, the committee has received over 50 submissions. Once a piece is accepted, the artist will sign an online, nonexclusive, publishing rights agreement to protect both the artist and the church.

What is the message the church hopes will be conveyed through this new program?

“We hope the program conveys that we are a strong, vibrant and current church that is moved by the Spirit to go outside our traditional, customary ways. The arts are God’s gift to share with the wider world,” said Ulloa. Holder added, “We are not attempting to convert anyone through this outreach. This is a way to celebrate how the Spirit moves. Art is a reflection of grace.”

Sherry Blackman is an author and pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. Her latest book is “Tales from the Trail, Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail.”

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